In the city of Seattle, you may be ticketed for camping or sleeping in a public place, sitting on a sidewalk, or using the restroom.
In other words, things that people who live inside do every day without thinking twice become punishable offenses when you’re outside with nowhere else to do them.
Homelessness, itself, is not a crime. But a battery of relatively small infractions can make it seem like one. Laws about loitering, littering, sitting, smoking, “aggressively begging” and parking impact people who live outside more than those who don’t, and getting hit with a fine can be the start of an expensive and damaging path.
“I think the more accurate way to characterize it is the criminalization of visible poverty,” says Yurij Rudensky, a staff attorney at Columbia Legal Services, which offers legal assistance to low-income individuals. “There are laws that restrict or prohibit people from engaging in necessary life-sustaining activities in public when there’s really not an alternative.”
These laws have drawn the ire of advocates. Seattle’s sleeping laws were challenged in 2015, and just this year, a Lakewood law about aggressive panhandling was deemed unconstitutional by the state’s Supreme Court. In an August letter, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest “arguing that making it a crime for people who are homeless to sleep in public places, when there is insufficient shelter space in a city, unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless.”
Defenders of these laws might argue that the worst a person may incur is a fine, but a small infraction can elevate quickly.
“Even though not all of these result in criminal charges, they can eventually lead to criminalization,” Rudensky said. “If something is punished by a civil fine, or it’s an infraction where someone has to show up to court and they’re either unable to pay the fine or unable to get to court, that can snowball into a misdemeanor-level offense.”
And, of course, poor folks aren’t always the perpetrators of crimes. In fact, more often than not, they’re the victims — and they need help, too.
“We see marginalized and oppressed people daily as victims of crime, particularly in cases of family violence,” says King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, whose office provides civil legal aid to survivors of domestic violence. “Having a skilled advocate on their side can help even the playing field in a formerly abusive relationship, and increase the safety of victims and their children.”
Still, there’s more to be done, he said.
“The help we offer people is as much as we can do in the criminal justice system, but there are so many unmet needs for crime victims in the areas of domestic law, landlord tenant and other areas, including access to social services.”
There are a lot of reasons you can find yourself in the legal system in Seattle — especially if you live on the streets — and doing so can begin a spiral of debt and even incarceration that’s impossible to dig out of.